Emergency tug cover around the isles is to be extended until the end of March next year as the government tries to broker a permanent arrangement.
The emergency towing vessels (ETVs) had been scheduled to be scrapped in September as part of transport department cuts, but those based in Shetland and the Western Isles were re-instated after a vigorous public campaign.
This was originally for a three-month period until the end of this year to allow an ETV working group, which includes SIC political leader Josie Simpson, to explore different options.
But with no deal in sight Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore today said cover would continue to be provided for a further three months.
In a written statement to the House of Commons, he also revealed that the oil industry had indicated it was willing to establish a so-called “call-off” arrangement for its chartered vessels which would be deployed to help coastguards in an emergency.
“Detailed work is underway between operators, vessel owners and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency on working practices and necessary protocols governing the arrangements.
“During the last meeting of the Scottish ETV working group, I discussed the matter in depth with Oil & Gas UK, local authorities and other interested parties who have responded to this proposal.
“With that in mind, I have instructed that work should proceed quickly with a view to putting a framework in place as early as possible in the New Year.”
He described the development as “very positive” which would offer “re-assurance to local communities”.
“This step also demonstrates active support by the oil industry for corporate social responsibility and I greatly welcome their helpful contribution and constructive engagement.”
Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael welcomed the announcement.
“The decision to extend the emergency tug contract for three months in September was widely welcomed in the Northern Isles. I have remained in touch with ministers since that point and know that the engagement between the government, local authorities and other interested parties, especially the oil and gas industry, has been excellent.
“Good progress has been made but it is clear that there is still some work that remains to be done. This announcement will allow discussions to continue and help ensure that necessary coverage is provided going forward.
“I am disappointed that the SNP government in Edinburgh, which has never been slow off the mark with press releases about the importance of the tugs, has failed to come up with any contribution to the debate at all. Ministers at Holyrood have responsibility for marine conservation in Scotland so have a benefit from the presence of the tugs. They have completely failed, however, to put their money where their mouth is and have chosen instead to play politics.
“I will continue to work with ministers in the UK government to help find a sustainable long-term alternative to the current arrangements.”